Three and a half years ago when I interviewed Neil McCallum, the founder and creator of Dry River Wines, I asked him why he decided to plant the aromatic variety, Gewurztraminer, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris in his foundation vineyard. That was in 1979 when other Martinborough pioneers were planting Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Quite simply, Neil liked gewurz.
The memory of great wines from Alsace that he drank while studying at Oxford University in England fuelled his passion for the luscious drop then when he arrived back in New Zealand he discovered the gewurztraminers that Denis Irwin of Matawhero Wines in Gisborne was making - wine that turned heads, wine that won gold medals.
Gewurztraminer lovers are glad that Neil made planted the grape and made his wines, wines that have developed in style over time, wines that have developed in richness and concentration with the age of the vines.
Neil produced his first Dry River Gewurztraminer in mid-1980's and until 1997 the style varied from bone dry to ultra sweet. In 1997 the 'house-style' was decided upon, the wines would be 'Vendage Tardive' to use an Alsatian term, or 'late harvest' to use the common translation.
Neil believes that great wine comes from great grapes, starting with vineyard site then vine age, "about 8 years", says Neil, before the vine is able to produce a quality product. Optimising the results then depends on several factors
- by training the foliage, or canopy, to get direct sunlight onto as much foliage as possible. Dry River utilises the Scott-Henry method of trellising to aid this.
- by leaf-plucking around the bunches of grapes to expose them to sunlight
- by balancing crop yield against the leaf canopy produced by the vine
- by avoiding irrigation in order to get the vines to seek their own water deep in the gravels of the Martinborough Terrace.
His Gewurztraminer wines are not flights of fancy, they are powerful wines, built to last.
This was proved at a recent vertical tasting in Auckland when Neil came to the big smoke with Katie Hammond, a Lincoln University graduate who started at Dry River at the end of 2000 and is now Neil's 'right hand man'. They had 10 ten vintages of Gewurztraminer and seven vintages of Syrah for tasting. What a treat!
Katie Hammond and bottles of Dry River wines
I tasted the wines from oldest to youngest, fearful that the youthfulness richness and pungency of a younger wine could overpower a more developed wine next to it.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 1992
Tasted from Bottle No. 1044. 13.9% alc
Deep gold, quite developed in the colour, lychees on the nose, lychee jam, peach, apricot and spice in the palate. Even though the bottle had leaked the wine still had plenty of vibrancy and charm with strong spices, old rose, melon jam and musk lingering. This was made bone dry.
1993 none made
Dry River Gewurztraminer 1994
Tasted from Bottle 1111. 14% alc.
Slightly oxidised smelling on the nose with a lanolin character running though it. There's an underlying delicate spiciness but overall it is quite mellow and heading down. But the finish is long with a musky sweetness and aromatic spices, peach jam, a touch of rose and vanilla pod linger. It would be good to see this from a bottle with a good cork.
1995 none made.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 1996
Tasted from Bottle 4206. 13.7% alc.
Quite delicate on nose and still quite tight in the palate. A little dusty, this has a spicy backbone. The wine starts to open up and evolve with a bit of time in the glass to show sweet, musky aromatic spices, lychee juice, sweet fruit then dry spice. It's a contrast of sweet and dry as it titillates. Great length once again.
The 1997 vintage marks the first of what was to become the 'house style' Neil says he is pushing towards a 'Vendage Tardive'. "The wines do not survive on acidity, they survive on extract", he said.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 1997
Tasted from Bottle 1849. 12.8% alc.
Still tight and not revealing much on the nose but rich and powerful in palate with forward flavours of honey, waxy botrytis and apricot, then the spices start to emerge. This has a full rich body, a little toffee perhaps, with stonefruits and a touch of tropical fruit / mangoes influencing the spicy finish. A very powerful, richly textured wine with terrific length.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 1998
Tasted from Bottle 1068. 13.5% alc.
Seems a little drier first into the palate, very fine, very silky, a baby of a wine with a huge structure built by phenolics. Spiced pear, a touch of clove and cinnamon on the front of the palate then the wine opens up and leaves the most magnificent aftertaste with very spicy lychee juice and a touch of orange that has been macerated with mulled wine spices. This is amazingly youthful, bright and zesty for a wine that is 6 years old.
A hot year.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 1999
Tasted from Bottle 2856. 14% alc.
Light gold with a lovely brightness, this has a slightly caramel/toffee texture. It's a honeyed wine with lovely sweetness, lovely balance, and a harmony of fruit, spice and alcoholic warmth. Botrytis influences the palate with zesty spice, while fragrant florals influence both the nose and palate. It's rich and full-bodied without being overpowering, and has great flavour and length. Rose petals linger.
I rated this absolutely outstanding.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 2000
Tasted from Bottle 1072. 13% alc.
Medium gold, slightly deeper in colour than the 1999 beside it. A ripe smelling wine with pear and lychee, this is more primary in its aromatics and smells like good NZ Gewurztraminer. There's a wonderful backbone and structure with fragrant spiced oranges, ground ginger, coriander seeds and musk. It seems riper and fatter than the 1999 with its oily honeyed texture and is really lifted in its spicy aftertaste, with lemon meringue pie richness and hints of beeswax adding intrigue.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 2001
Tasted from Bottle 1022. 12.5% alc.
This has a lovely fineness to the texture, it's sweetly honeyed with intriguing spiced citrus characters, a touch of lime zest, cardamon and ground coriander, musk and rose petal florals. There's a spicy, gingery, white pepper lift to the finish. It's beautifully balanced, not overpoweringly sweet, and very long in flavour - unadulterated Gewurztraminer with lovely purity and length.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 2002
Tasted from Bottle 3902. 13% alc.
Light gold in colour and a richer, fatter, more oily wine in the palate. Oily and lush with a beeswax, botrytis influence, honeyed, spicy, oily aromatics, spiced nectarines/oranges in syrup, becomes finer and more linear on the finish. Very long, honeyed, a little peachy, more obvious luscious late harvest style with lingering gingery / zesty spice. Great persistence with sweet fruit lingering.
Dry River Gewurztraminer 2003
Bottle number not noted. 13% alc.
Quite different to the others, no doubt because of its youth. It's lifted and aromatically spicy on the nose with ginger spice and musk dominating the fragrance. It's seems like there are more lemony characters in this than the others, it's a low acid wine so put it down to youth, phenolics and the vintage. There's a sweet floral honeyed character and a sweet tangelo influence with cinnamon and clove lingering. The texture is like satin, just gorgeous.
Syrah is a relatively new grape variety for Dry River with the first release in 1996. The grapes for the Dry River Syrah have always been sourced from the same vineyard. The Arapoff designation on the label refers to when the vineyard was owned by the Arapoff Family. The vineyard is now owned by Dry River and has been renamed 'Lovat Vineyard' this designation appears on the 2002 Syrah.
Dry River Arapoff Syrah 1996
Tasted from Bottle No. 1156. 13.5% alc.
Pinky red, still quite youthful in colour with good depth but not opaque. There's a lovely array of spices with rose pepper and wood on the nose, blue currants and red fruits, just a touch of chocolate and musky spicy notes on the finish. Lovely vinosity, velvety tannins and lingering aromatic spices.
Dry River Arapoff Syrah 1997
An unlabelled bottle.
Similar colour to the 1997. Leather and a touch of tar on the nose. Riper, more structured, firmer tannins but also more evolved than the 96 with secondary characters dominating the wine and nutmeg spices lingering.
A cool year for Martinborough.
Dry River Arapoff Amaranth Syrah 1998
Tasted from Bottle No. 2471. 14% alc.
Very deep colour, blackberry centre, crimson rims. You could just about be forgiven for thinking this wine was Australian. Big, rich and ripe with a core of sweet black berried fruit, wonderfully structured, lovely spices, musk on the finish. A wonderfully ripe, full bodied and deliciously flavoursome wine with great persistence. Firm tannins, sweet ripe fruit, a touch of liquorice and a long persistent musky finish.
From an unusually hot and dry vintage. Aged in French barriques (50% new) for 15 months. Given the Amaranth designation as considered a particularly interesting prospect for cellaring.
Dry River Arapoff Syrah 1999
Tasted from Bottle No. 1063. 13% alc.
Amazingly youthful bright ruby, blackberry centre, crimson purple rims. Just a whiff of wet dog on the nose, pepper, spice, blackberry. Immensely flavoured wine, pepper, coffee bean and musk with concentration that Neil says is from the vine age. This is the style of Syrah that NZ is becoming known for. Fantastic velvet/silk texture, fantastic length. Fruit is the winner. Spiced plum, lingering liquorice and a yeasty sweetness.
Dry River Arapoff Syrah 2000
Tasted from Bottle No. 1037. 13% alc
Dry, still evolving, cracked berry fruit, sweet liquorice, nutmeg. Wonderfully powerful and starting to metamorphose as the tannins are just starting to soften. There are some interesting thyme, mint and oak influences behind the sweet fruit, great length again, still evolving though and yet to show it true power. The potential is there. Lovely mulled citrus behind it flares on the wonderfully aromatic finish.
A cool vintage with excellent weather in the Autumn. Rated by Dry River as a 'fine vintage' for Syrah.
Dry River Arapoff Syrah 2001
Tasted from Bottle No. 2277. 12% alc.
Crimson purple, bright. Youthful cherry, red currant and blackberry fruit, very tight, a touch (ever so slight) of mint, coffee, nutmeg, a hint of liquorice, firm velvety tannins, crisp fruit, aromatic spices, a fragrant lifted finish, a wine still evolving. The fruit is awesome on the finish with great persistence and length, a floral note in its youth, a touch of liquorice too. Wonderful lift and length.
Dry River Lovat Vineyard Syrah 2002
Tasted from Bottle No. 1339. 13.5% alc.
Inky purple, great youth in the colour, which is dense to the crimson purple rim. Pepper and rose petal with creamy cedary oak on the nose, its a little meaty and savoury in the aromatics. Very lifted and bright in the palate, quite zesty, a little spritzy, with dark chocolate richness and creamy oak. There's lifted spices on the finish, where blue fruits linger. A lovely wine, great length and excellent potential.
As to the spritziness I experienced in this wine, Neil says that bottling under cold conditions (he bottles mid winter) raises the solubility of the CO2, so when the wine warms up it becomes apparent on the tongue. It should disappear after 3 to 4 years. Later I opened a bottle of this wine at home and it showed no spritziness. It had a lovely brightness to the hue and exhibited currant cardamon, nutmeg and rose pepper spices.
Of the Syrahs I thought the 1999 an absolutely magnificent example of the best that New Zealand can produce that is ready to drink now and is the one I would choose to impress an overseas wine lover. But I would definitely have immense pleasure in drinking the rich, ripe more Aussie-like, seductive 1998.
At this stage I think the younger wines will benefit from further cellaring.
Neil McCallum recommends that the wines be cellared at a temperature range between 10 degrees C and 15 degrees C throughout the year.
Copyright Sue Courtney
Click here for the tasting notes from a vertical tasting of Dry River Pinot Gris and Dry River Pinot Noir held in July 2004.